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Hungry For Help: Food Crisis in Niger

[Niger] Niger, Maradi, A starving child brought to an MSF feeding center by his mother seeking help for the malnourished infant. [Date picture taken: 2005/08/12]
Niger's government hopes to make this kind of image a thing of the past (Edward Parsons/IRIN)

Niger – a forgotten country. A land lost in time, ancient, rich in culture and tradition – 
A nation of subsistence farmers and herders, underdeveloped, out of touch with the world. Niger the second poorest country on Earth.

World attention comes only in times of crisis – when death strikes. 

Here in the town of Zinder hundreds of malnourished children are brought by their mothers to a makeshift clinic.

Most of them are sick from unsafe water – a substitute for lacking milk from their mothers' breasts.

Eighteen-month old Haoua drinks his first milk for weeks. 

Medecins Sans Frontieres established this feeding center in the middle of July. 

600 mothers arrived with their malnourished children in the first week alone, and the numbers keep rising.

Many children are so weak they would certainly die without help. 

The face of hunger. 

Infants too sick to feed themselves – high-protein foods are pumped through tubes in the nose into their empty stomachs. 

Quote: Dr. Giselle Nissacka (MSF)

“This boy is dehydrated and malnourished. He has been fed for a couple of days through a tube. Now we have removed the tube because he has eaten well. While we were feeding him artificially we made sure that the mother continued to breast feed him.

We have many cases of diarrhea but the kids were malnourished first so they don’t have enough strength to survive

Some of them are dead on arrival because they come too late, and there are several more that died within hours of arriving.” 

100 kilometres to the north, Zermo village. People here have no money to reach the feeding centre. 

Gambo Maman leads us to his hut. Sadly, there is nothing unusual about the condition of his family. 

Quote: Gambo Maman: “We have no money. We don’t have enough to eat.” 

Quote: Haoua Maman “We are hungry.”

This family eats only once a day. This bag of cereal must last another two months as they wait for the next harvest. 

The other villagers are hungry too. 

The Mayor of the county has nothing to offer them but pity. 

Quote: Moussa Ganaon, Mayor

“Here the problem at the beginning was drought. The people lost everything. Now they are totally helpless, they have no money to buy food – that’s why you can see these kind of cases.” 

Despite the onset of the rains, Zermo’s farmlands lie almost barren, ravaged by last year’s drought. Infertile soil and basic agricultural practices means the crisis will go on.

A year ago – a biblical plague of locusts invaded the land. Billions of insects turned fields into a farmer’s nightmare.

Despite their best efforts, across West Africa people lost their harvest. Entire fields of sorghum and millet were devoured causing hunger and hard times.

Bakari Seidou, is the head of the Niger government’s food crisis center. He first requested food aid two years ago. 

Quote: Bakari Seidou, head Niger Food Crises Centre CCA: The people didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation. We said: careful, there is a crisis developing here. The international community didn’t react appropriately until they saw pictures of the hungry children – only then did they realize how bad the situation was.

In 2003 we said our food security stocks are down to 50%, because of this we requested other countries to help us. We have made requests in French Arabic and English and sent appeals to more than 70 countries to help us replenish our stocks. We knew the situation was going to be very bad but we didn’t receive a single gramme of cereals to fill our warehouses.” 

The results of recent international indifference are clear to see in Zermou’s food market. Chillis and nuts are all that can be found – along with malnutrition. 

What little cereals are available now, cost three times the normal price. 

Niamey, Niger’s capital, is a vibrant city full of trade – and surprisingly - full of food. 

Traders have cashed in on the crisis, driving prices high by keeping commodities scarce. While the international press continues to report that there is famine in Niger, bags of rice and barrels full of cooking oil are unloaded in the markets of Niamey. 

The United Nations has a difficult job making people understand what the real problem is. 
Quote: Michele Falavigna, Resident Representative UNDP

Not everybody understands what is a malnourished person, a seriously malnourished person or a person in danger of being malnourished so the simplest way is to call it a famine. But there is no famine in Niger. Widespread famine there is not in Niger today. There are severe cases and there are cases where people are in danger because of some specific facts that have happened in an area that have to be helped. 

Despite all the beauty – the problem is chronic poverty, the underlying cause for many humanitarian crises in sub-Saharan Africa!

This village in the Tahoua region of Niger perfectly illustrates the permanent problems many African countries are facing. Hauling water like their foremothers did. 

All the men have left in search of work and the burden of labour falls firmly on women’s heads.

On average women in Niger have more than 8 children placing a heavy demand on the cooking pot.

And when the pot is empty, it’s up to the women to fill it again. With a population that doubles in the next 22 years, this gets more and more difficult.

Samour Lawan complains: “Look, we have no food." 
"Look at my stomach! I and my kids have nothing to eat.” 

Empowering women is a vital tool in the fight against malnutrition, says UNICEF. 

Quote: Adjibade Aboudou Karimou, Representative UNICEF
“There are some structural problem about malnutrition in Niger. Even in years where there is a good harvest we still face this malnutrition of the children, the most vulnerable part of the population, because of the way the distribution of revenue is made in a very traditional family structure which is a very patriarchal one where men own everything. Everything belongs to the men so the women don’t get access enough to food and cannot take care of their children as a consequence.”

In Niger, it’s the women who grab the hoes. While raising the children, it’s also their duty to raise the crops. And they must do so alone.

They have no money to invest in fertilizers or irrigation. The little they produce is often not even enough for themselves and their families. Every single plant counts. 

Quote: Peter Bieler, Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC)
“Malnutrition in my opinion is a problem of agriculture production – you need an agriculture production which id secure – you need food security. Food security means that farmers have to have a harvest every year, a secure harvest, they should be able to invest into their production. It needs a professional farmer, not a farmer that is farming because he is in rural areas and has nothing else to do. It needs a policy, an agricultural policy that strengthens the agricultural system and agricultural production. Productivity has to increase not the production as such. 

There are signs of modernity in Niger but the reality on the ground is that it remains a country stuck in the past. Where things move, the way they always have. 

This woman has nothing more than a simple stick to thrash her crops. 

Infrastructure in most places is non-existent.pushing people into ever more hostile environments in search of a living. This food for work programme tries to transform a moonscape into arable land. 

Quote: Michele Falavigna, Resident Representative UNDP

“We don’t really understand in this country why the international community, despite the fact that this is a democratic country that has been very stable does not receive that aid and attention it needs to put its people on a solid path towards development.” 

But like in much of Africa, instead of development aid, people get food aid.

The late reaction of the international community means that this emergency will cost far more than if aid had come earlier. 

Quote: Stephanie Savariou WFP
“Well the cost of the operation for a start would have been totally different. Now we are looking at prices that are at least five times bigger. We had to bring the food on trucks from Togo, from Benin, we had to organise an airlift, we have to make sure that our partners on the ground are ready to deliver the food so they have to screen the population and they have to make sure the food is distributed in a proper way so all that has to be organised much more faster and that makes things a lot more complicated.”

Better late than never, food aid is finally arriving. 

Here in Bamou, the people are cheering. 

Almost a thousand hungry women and children line the streets in anticipation of a handout. Children are selected according to need - this child looks too healthy to get food aid.

Saja Mamane has hungry twins. Feeding two little mouths is difficult for her.
“We are very thankful”
“Life is hard without help”

Not everyone is allowed in - only those with clearly malnourished children get food for free. 

Concern, the Irish aid agency in charge of this distribution, wants to avoid unnecessary dependency on food aid. Every child is checked carefully.

David Andrews is the former foreign minister of Ireland and the current president of the Irish Red Cross.

“I think its wrong that the international community has reacted so late and I think that the international community – those people who I’ve met here in Niger – have put their hands up and admit that for a number of reasons they reacted too late. I think that the international community should be ashamed of itself.”

The reality remains that many donors only rush in to help, when a complex problem has turned into a simple crisis. 

Stephanie Savariou WFP
“It’s very difficult to sell prevention. Its very difficult to warn the international community about a food crisis that is going to happen, to say that some children might dies as a consequence – to say that at the moment its not totally the case but that its going to come. And the tragedy about this is that when it comes, when children die then the spectacular images trigger a lot of attention.” 

Quote: Peter Bieler, Swiss Development Cooperation

“We can give assistance now but what is happening next year? Even if there is no peak we’re going to have malnourished children again. No one will respond again – there is a longer term commitment needed of the international community to tackle such a problem as the case in Niger.”

Sadly these kind of images are commonplace across much of sub-saharan Africa – and unless poverty and underdevelopment are urgently addressed nothing much will change.

A small bag of food aid helps this boy for a while, but it won't solve Africa's problems.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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